the ceo magazine, leadership,
Janet Smith Meeks, Author, Gracious Leadership: Lead Like You’ve Never Led Before

Rarely does a day go by that we aren’t bombarded with media accounts of high profile, toxic leaders.  From bully behaviors including sexual harassment offenses that have harmed countless individuals all the way to the demise of once “high flying” corporations, the ripple effect of bad bosses seems to be at an all-time high. 

Because you are the CEO of your company, as you read this article, I invite you to consider two primary opportunities that are more important now than ever before. First, I encourage you to get real with yourself and ponder if your leadership style includes some of the bad boss behaviors described within this article. Secondly, after you’ve been honest with yourself regarding how you are showing up every day, take a candid look at other leaders within your organization and assess if they display the characteristics of toxic bosses or if they emulate the attributes of positive, high performance leaders. If opportunities for improvement reside within either consideration set, then the simple question for you will be, “So what are you going to do about it?”

During the past year I was immersed in writing a book that teaches leaders how they can be fully respectful and lead their teams to achieve consistent excellence. As an important part of this journey, I sought feedback from highly respected leaders who shared their personal experiences with “bad bosses.”  

One colleague said, “My boss, a high-ranking leader in our organization, was well known for throwing people under the bus, passing the buck and ‘putting people in their place.’  When it was time for public recognition, my boss was always the first in line for praise.”

A second colleague shared, “My boss wouldn’t listen when I brought forth legitimate concerns. Because this ongoing dysfunction ultimately made me feel I was being taken for granted, I eventually developed a bad attitude as opposed to being a corporate cheerleader. This drove me to the point where I actually submitted my resignation to work for a competitor.”

And yet another leader stated, “My boss never gave us any feedback unless it was negative. Our work was never good enough for her.”

A wide range of other bad boss behaviors was conveyed such as … My boss took credit for the work of the team… The boss threatened me and yelled at me... My boss was out of control with his temper…. I never knew when my boss was going to “go off on me.”

Why are the toxic behaviors of bad bosses so pervasive in today’s society? What is it that makes so many leaders miss the mark?

Perhaps these well-meaning individuals learned bad leadership behaviors from their own superiors or from within dysfunctional homes. Perhaps it’s because these leaders have delivered a solid bottom line in the short term. Perhaps these toxic bosses think their followers actually desire such negative antics. Or, perhaps these leaders are simply not happy.

While the list of reasons could go on and on, one thing is certain. Bad bosses are not going to change if we remain silent in our acceptance of their untenable behaviors. As a sage person once said, “If you permit it, you promote it.”

Numerous accounts exist of organizations that have fallen from excellence because of toxic leadership. Corporations such as American Apparel and Uber have suffered costly reputational damage and value deterioration because the bad behaviors of their CEOs were permitted. The ripple effect of a toxic boss is far reaching as such individuals will ultimately shape the work environment of affected organizations. And, no quick fixes can readily repair broken cultures.

In a June 20, 2017 issue of the academic journal The Conversation, authors Katina Sawyer and Christian Thoroughgood wrote an article entitled “Fixing a toxic culture like Uber’s requires more than just a new CEO.” The authors state, “Our work on toxic leadership demonstrates how toxic, unethical, flawed, or otherwise ineffective leaders can do a lot of damage in organizations. But the damage can also run both ways. Susceptible followers, a lack of checks and balances, and other cultural elements can help create or reinforce bad leadership.”

The authors identify two types of followers who are “likely to remain obedient to toxic leaders, turn a blind eye to their behavior, and even participate in the leader’s destructive activities: conformers (individuals who are prone to obedience) and colluders (those who actively align themselves with toxic leaders).” Colluders should be rooted out of the organization and conformers need to be trained to understand what the organization is doing to require positive leadership and a healthy corporate culture.

In 2006 I was asked to lead the turnaround of a struggling hospital. Opportunities for improvement existed across the balanced scorecard. As we taught our leaders about the importance of assuring accountability among all employees for both technical and behavioral competencies, we would initially hear the comments, “But she’s a good nurse” or “He’s a good housekeeper.” We became disciplined in requiring managers to hold individual conversations with all employees, telling them what they did well and what improvements would be required for them to be more effective. Thankfully, most of the employees who had behavioral deficiencies sought to change, and many of them did improve. For those who unfortunately didn’t “get it” … well, let’s just say they were liberated to find new opportunities elsewhere.

Now, back to the two questions that I encouraged you to ponder. If opportunities for improvement exist within the leadership ranks of your organization, what steps will you take to be a fully respectful CEO who also expects consistent excellence throughout your organization? What will you do differently starting today? And what will you require of those who follow you? Just remember that the ripple effect of your leadership…  be it positive or negative… will last for many years to come. 

About the Author

Janet Smith Meeks is the author of a newly released book entitled Gracious Leadership: Lead Like You’ve Never Led Before. The book teaches leaders how they can become fully respectful leaders who can guide their teams to peak performance. Additional information is available at


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